Indisputably, Debesh Chattopadhyay has evolved into one of Bengali theatre’s most powerful as well as thinking senior directors—I write this mindful of the fact that theatrical impact does not necessarily go hand in hand with deep thought on the theme. Chattopadhyay’s political activism finds two manifestations in his latest work both for his own group Sansriti and guest-directing elsewhere.
At this crossroads in our nation, I cannot think of a more ominous drama than Utpal Dutt’s Barricade to reflect through a Brechtian lens the insidious strategy of transforming a democracy into an oligarchy and ultimately a dictatorship. That is precisely why I translated it, about which readers can turn to here. Chattopadhyay concluded exactly the same thing, therefore deciding to reacquaint Bengali viewers with it by directing it for Chakdah Natyajan. How the Nazis won the elections and then gradually co-opted the German administration, media, intelligentsia and finally the judiciary serves as an explicit warning.
Kolkata audiences are flocking to the production and applauding loudly some of Dutt’s lines that I did not expect them to: about rigging the polls, about lemon juice squeezed like taxes, about the press doing somersaults. Dutt would have enjoyed the house-full reception, which excited even the resident mongoose at the Academy of Fine Arts to come onstage to join the fight against goose-steppers at the performance I saw, topped by Sudip Gupta’s enormous, scary puppet of Hitler. Otherwise, Chattopadhyay’s scenography admirably utilizes only the basic lights and set pieces in Natyajan’s possession.
As in several of his recent interpretations of classics, he lets the text speak for itself but puts the young cast of Natyajan through a rigorous regimen that reflects in their acting. However, they tend to tail-drop the ends of sentences and need serious coaching in European behaviour. In the West, people don’t wear hats indoors, taking them off as they enter; in the 20th century, they handshake rather than bow. And in a court, nobody should handle a bloodstained knife without gloves or a hanky. Notable guest actors include Sanjib Sarkar in the lead as the journalist Otto (though he shoots a pistol as if holding a machine gun), and Kamal Chattopadhyay bringing his idiosyncratic touch to the revolutionary Bruno, the part Dutt used to take.
Chattopadhyay first directed 1984? for Swapna-sandhani, and now revives it with Sansriti. Inspired by George Orwell, he sets his essentially original script in India, a surveillance state where Big Brother monitors and dictates everything we do. His hero, secularly named Gautam Islam, works in the government records office, which creates “truth” and erases the past. Meanwhile the thought police report back to BB on all violations and hunt down the perpetrators. To match the intensity of Barricade, Chattopadhyay should make the play longer and much more dangerous than it appears presently. For example, the character referencing Baburam Sapure evokes nonsense a la Sukumar Ray, which undermines the gravity of the situation.
Some slips in credibility demand immediate rectification. Rendered toothless by torture, Gautam Islam (enacted suitably by Arna Mukhopadhyay as an innocent everyman, except for this flaw) recovers his diction quite well after a brief incoherence. Second, with hardly anything going undetected, how come his girlfriend shouts out to him where they should meet and he suspects nothing? Third, how can even the most naïve man believe that someone with the initials B B Bose (interestingly a woman, Arpita Ghosh in an unusual duplicitous role) can possibly belong to the resistance?
Sanchayan Ghosh’s somewhat static installation of the totalitarian gaze, including Chattopadhyay’s not-too-threatening placement of extras in the auditorium, could have had greater effect if Bengali groups (even Ghosh himself) hadn’t already applied similar scenography before. Instead of safe videos, I suggest swivelling CCTVs capturing and projecting spectators’ images right through the production, invading their privacy.